Leaders form Bensonhurst Alliance to foster cultural ties

Community board acts to counter anti-Asian rants over supermarket

March 30, 2016 By Paula Katinas Brooklyn Daily Eagle
William Guarinello (right) founded the Bensonhurst Alliance. At left is Community Board 11 District Manager Marnee Elias-Pavia. Eagle file photo by Paula Katinas
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The ugly reaction on social media to news that an Asian-American company had purchased the former Waldbaum’s supermarket on New Utrecht Avenue spurred Bensonhurst leaders into action and led to the formation of a new group aimed at building ties between cultures.

The new group, the Bensonhurst Alliance, was formed by Community Board 11 Chair Bill Guarinello to foster understanding in the increasingly diverse community, members said.

The alliance, whose members include leaders of the Asian, Russian and Arab communities, as well as members of Community Board 11 and the 62nd Precinct Community Council, has already held its first meeting. The group has not announced any specific programs or activities, but it has issued a mission statement.

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Community Board 11 District Manager Marnee Elias-Pavia, an alliance member, told the Brooklyn Eagle that the alliance’s goal “is to be pro-active rather than reactive to events in our community.”

Guarinello, president and CEO of HeartShare Human Services of New York, “has his pulse on the community,” Elias-Pavia said.

Formerly an Italian-American enclave, in recent years Bensonhurst has become more culturally diverse as Italian-Americans moved out and large numbers Asians, Russians, Poles, Mexicans, Muslims and people from Central America moved in. In 2013, 48.9 percent of Bensonhurst residents were foreign-born and the population of white people dipped below 50 percent, according to

“Some people are uncomfortable with change,” Elias-Pavia said.

There are still plenty of pizzerias in Bensonhurst, but there are an increasing number of Chinese take-out places and Spanish-owned eateries setting up shop.

Guarinello had been looking to form a multi-cultural leadership group in Bensonhurst for several years. He got the idea after a disturbing incident in which pages from the Koran were found torn to shreds on local streets. The community board chairman convened a round-table with local Muslim leaders. The suspect turned out to be a Muslim man with mental health issues, according to Elias-Pavia. But the idea of forming a multi-cultural leadership group remained intact.

Guarinello decided to renew the effort in January when it was reported that J-Mart, an Asian food market based in Queens, won the bidding war for the former Waldbaum’s supermarket site at 8121 New Utrecht Ave.

Waldbaum’s, which had been operating at the site for 37 years, closed its doors for good on Nov. 19.

In reaction to the news about J-Mart, social media and local news websites in Bensonhurst were inundated with ugly, bigoted, anti-Asian comments from residents.

“We saw some of the unfortunate comments. Frankly, we were hoping that those people didn’t live in this community anymore,” Elias-Pavia said.

But the ugliness fostered a sense of unity among Bensonhurst leaders who were eager to combat the bigotry.

The Bensonhurst Alliance “is dedicated to strengthening the strong and vibrant Bensonhurst community through an environment fostering the values and traditions that respects and celebrates the diversity, cultures and heritages of our community,” according to its mission statement.

Alliance member Dr. Wah Sang Lee stated at the meeting that Bensonhurst is a community blessed with a diversity of cultures and that residents and visitors alike are fortunate to experience authentic Asian, Italian, Middle Eastern, Russian and Spanish cuisine made by hands which came from those respective part of the world.

Another member, Nancy Sottile, executive director of the Federation of Italian-American Organizations of Brooklyn, Inc., stressed the importance of sharing and learning the customs and traditions of Bensonhurst, whether through the performing arts, food or socialization.

Sonia Valentin, a member of the 62nd Precinct Community Council, stated that social interactions that support an appreciation and celebration of different cultures are of paramount importance.

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